By: Marielle DeJong, North Carolina Communications & Operations Coordinator, Friends of the Smokies
On any given weekend, North Carolinians seeking out a scenic day outdoors could venture to Looking Glass Rock in Pisgah National Forest as easily as Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Both spots offer hiking, opportunities for wildlife viewing, and scenic views of sunrises and sunsets. But behind the scenes, the ways that they’re managed and funded differ significantly.
These places are among the many natural landscapes and waterways accessible to the public in Western North Carolina, all of which are managed by different federal, state, and local governments. There are so many that it can seem overwhelming to keep track of them all. But, trying is worth the effort because it puts us on the path to informed environmental stewardship and better recreational experiences.
Pisgah National Forest is a familiar place to many Western North Carolinians. Its more than 500,000 acres fall under the management of the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture. The U.S. Forest Service manages more than 232 million acres with the mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Nearby, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the 417 units of the National Park System administered by the U.S. Department of Interior. The National Park Service “preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
While visitors often want to compare the landscapes, resources, and user experiences between these and other public lands, it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Different mission statements and entities drive the care and on-the-ground management of these two very special places.
There are also state-managed lands, including Gorges and South Mountains State Parks, which are two of the 75 land areas managed by the North Carolina State Parks System. Another popular destination, DuPont State Recreational Forest, is managed by the North Carolina Forest Service. There are public lands run by local governments, like Buncombe County Greenways, and privately owned lands that provide public access, such as those in Hickory Nut Gorge under the stewardship of Conserving Carolina. Each agency or group has its own mission statement, employees, and budget.
While this is not a comprehensive list—there are a wide variety of designations for public lands— it is still a useful snapshot of the diversity of natural resources in Western North Carolina. Together they provide opportunities for activities, from hiking to hunting and from historic preservation to timber harvesting. They accommodate people from all walks of life and with all kinds of interests. We need all of these public lands, and interconnectedness among these places is a good thing.
Understanding these different agencies makes for a better outdoor experience. If you have a question about trail conditions, road closures, or whether a facility is open, having the right phone number or website is the best way to get an answer quickly. While you might be able to get information about Blue Ridge Parkway road closures by calling the Pisgah Ranger Station operated by the U.S. Forest Service, it may not be up-to-date and it certainly requires additional work on behalf of the Station.
If you want to effect change at one of these landscapes, it’s best to start by knowing the managing agency—and its appropriate friends group or supporting environmental nonprofits, like Friends of the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, The Pisgah Conservancy, and Friends of DuPont, to name a few. Knowing whether a landscape is managed at the federal, state or local level can ensure that your advocacy letters and phone calls make it to the people who can have the greatest impact, be it United States congressmen, representatives to the North Carolina General Assembly, or your own local city or county officials.
So the next time you’re out paddling Big Creek, climbing Cedar Rock, mountain biking in DuPont, fishing the Davidson, hiking to Rainbow Falls, or driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, take note of where you are. Look at your map or the surrounding signage to see if the managing agency is listed, or even take the time to do some research at home. Think intentionally about why and how your favorite outdoor spaces exist, who manages and cares for them today, and what you can do to maintain their future effectively as an informed steward. These lands belong to you, so know what you own, and love them actively and thoughtfully.